Whether you want to call them free trials or demos, the ongoing absence — for the most part — of these offerings on the Nintendo eShop stores is noticeable. What's peculiar, at least from our perspective, is why that gap exists with some of Nintendo's finest first-party releases; in an increasingly competitive market not just to earn new customers, but in making money off the existing userbase, Nintendo is letting a potentially low-maintenance but valuable marketing tool go entirely unused.
To contextualise this debate from the beginning, we're going to focus on Wii U — though the argument can certainly be made for equivalent 3DS releases — and on Nintendo's own games. The issue of demos for download-only developers, for example, includes far more nuance and broader considerations; when your game is a budget price and you're running a small studio with very limited funds, producing a trial or demo build is an additional resource strain that may not seem worthwhile. There's also a credible line of thought that says a demo for a download game, in particular, can be negative, as giving away a slice of a smaller title can actually discourage buyers.
What's also beyond doubt is that some retail games simply are not suited to being presented in demo or trial form. Oddly, some of those games are among the few that have received demos on the Wii U eShop, including Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. Capcom's series is challenging and borderline impenetrable at the best of times, issues that actually become irresistible qualities after enough time has passed; yet demonstrating the best of that title within a short sample is borderline impossible. Another example of a slow-burner that earns the player's affection through time and practice is Platinum's brilliant The Wonderful 101 — while we're sure the demo for that game has caught the fancy of some, we wouldn't be surprised if it's been a hindrance to others, as it can be overwhelming in its early stages. With those examples we're glad Nintendo and its closest partners aren't all firing out trials of every game; sampling The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD at expos, for example, does little to promote the merits of the experience beyond some attractive visuals, as it is a lengthy adventure game after all.
Yet there are major Nintendo games that are perfectly structured for the demo route that are still absent. Two glaring examples are Super Mario 3D World and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Both terrific platformers of entirely different styles, their suitability is obvious — they're constructed of relatively short, standalone stages. Even the longer stages of Tropical Freeze would be suitable in the form of a trial package of three or four levels, while the shorter experiences of 3D World would perhaps need half a dozen or so stages. But the benefits are obvious — with no plot spoilers to worry about, and with games packed with varied environments and platforming concepts, it's possible to give a tantalising teaser and still leave much to be discovered.
What's surprising with these two examples is that such demos / trials already exist, and thousands of people have played them. We're not even talking about press builds, but those that have been on show at expos and Nintendo promotional events in stores. They're simple in construction, as they have a front-end menu that allow you to choose stages, and that's it. There's nothing fancy happening, just colourful boxes pointing the way to immensely fun games. We're sure other titles, with relatively minor effort, could also do a job with demo builds, though admittedly even those with the existing parts in place would have debatable merits as trials — Pikmin 3 has trial stages that could be used, yet the demo would have to introduce the mechanics is an accessible way.
Yet our point is simple. If Nintendo's retail game fortunes are, at least for this year, going to be largely reliant on first-party content, it'll need every marketing weapon available to drive sales. While it's true that the Wii U has exciting things happening on the eShop, for example, it's still a fact in the mainstream market that retail games and major boxed releases matter for selling consoles. The importance of the download-only market can only be fulfilled with actual monetary success when more Wii U systems are being bought and, importantly, actively used in the home.
We gave two platformer examples, and it's possible that Nintendo hasn't produced demo downloads for these titles due to them being big-ticket items that will secure a high attach-rate with the current Wii U userbase. Super Mario 3D World seems to have done that, as by the end of 2013 it had already sold 1.94 million copies out of 5.86 million Wii U system sales. It's questionable, however, how far Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze will go towards that; Nintendo of America highlighted "over 130,000" sales in its first eight days in February, its latest total in Japan is just 72,401 physical copies (Media Create), it's been struggling to stay in the UK top 40 and is 10th in the "recent bestsellers" list on our UK system. These aren't indicative of poor sales as yet — there's not enough data or enough weeks passed to judge that fully — but they look unlikely to be on the same scale as Super Mario 3D World. It's a game that some may put on a wishlist for a later date, others may not be as drawn to the DK brand as they are to a 3D Mario, and others may feel they're just fine with its Wii predecessor.
Word of mouth, reviews throughout the media and videos on YouTube can all help, of course, yet we're sure all would agree that free extras are always welcome. If Nintendo could grab four levels (whether the same as its pre-release expo builds or updated versions) and offer them as a free download, some doubters could be won over. It would also show that Nintendo's not going to release a big-name game and expect all Wii U owners to simply jump in without hesitation; it can help woo those users.
We'd not only love to see more of Nintendo's top-tier games promoted through post-release trials, but to utilise demos for building hype, too. We suspect many in the Nintendo Life community would temporarily lose their composure if, a month ahead of its release, two or three tracks for Mario Kart 8 were released as a "special preview" — an idea sort of used for Rayman Legends, but Ubisoft was in damage control mode after delaying it for a multi-platform release. Again, it's nothing that gamers keen enough to attend an expo haven't enjoyed, but having it on our own Wii U at home would add to the excitement. We think a Wii U owner showing their friends just how amazing MK8 looks in action as they race around the track would have a more direct, effective impact than any TV commercial. Likewise later this year with Super Smash Bros. on Wii U and 3DS later this year — give us a dozen fighters, two arenas and one mode of simple battles and we'll play it for hours. We'll likely, as Wii U owners, talk about it, write about it, post videos and share it with the world. We'll show others why the best of Nintendo's games are must haves; all before they're even in stores.
We're not suggesting that Nintendo isn't improving in these areas. The free trial periods of Wii Sports Club are excellent initiatives to encourage Wii U players to try and perhaps buy, while the free download version of Wii Fit U that could be 'bought' with a Wii Fit Metre was a nice idea that was, unfortunately, not exactly screamed from the rooftops. Much credit should go to work that's been put in with third-party partners, too, such as the excellent Bravely Default demo with progress that then transfers into the full game save. That latter example, tellingly, arrived before the game; it was direct marketing, in that respects, and perhaps contributed to that game's impressive U.S. sales in February, considering that it was a release some would argue had limited mainstream appeal.
Nintendo also has tools on Wii U that can simply be used better. If a pre-release trial — or even a normal demo — comes out for a major Wii U game, more can be done on the system's front end than a notification message few will read; that icon does sit, inconspicuously, in a spot easy to ignore. The first thing we should see on WaraWara Plaza is Satoru Iwata's Mii standing next to our own doing a "Direct" gesture before telling us there's a new Mario Kart 8 trial in the eShop. Miiverse messages should do the same, beyond giving us information on the latest updates to search functionality and the option to follow authorised developer accounts.
By targeting Wii U owners, making them feel like valued consumers and giving them delicious teases of the most exciting games, Nintendo can spread positive word of mouth. As consumers we've never been so chatty, whether speaking to a camera on our YouTube channels, tweeting, writing status updates on Facebook or posting on forums. Nintendo, despite commendable strides forward, often still behaves as if it's 2006/2007, when social networking was barely a part of life and everything it touched turned to gold. Yet the world is now more connected, and there's more competition, and some of what Nintendo does struggles to gain the traction it deserves. In this current day climate, the veil of secrecy should be lifted a little, and gamers should see for themselves why they should want to buy Nintendo's games, not be expected to jump simply "because it's Nintendo". Some of us are keen enough fans that we will, but it's the majority that need more persuasion that help Nintendo's profits return.
While the numbers are low by home console standards, there are millions of Wii U owners waiting to be impressed and to share that with friends, family and strangers on the internet. Nintendo can spread the word in many ways, and demos and trials are an area of untapped potential. As long as they don't have dastardly play limits, of course.